Ole Miss observed the old “there is a first time for everything” adage while holding Texas A&M scoreless in the first two quarters of a 35-20 win over the Aggies at Kyle Field. It was the first time a team coached by Sumlin, who is in his seventh season as a head coach, had zero points at halftime.
It served as a microcosm of what the last two weeks have been like for a usually high-powered offense.
“There were a number of times today where we just got whipped,” Sumlin said flatly after Saturday’s game. “It's kind of hard to fix that.”
There have been a myriad of reasons for the struggles, from wide receiver drops to inaccurate throws to an ineffective running game. Offensive line play doesn't seem to be what it was the last two seasons, either. Turnovers have been a large part of the problem as well, as the Aggies have committed six in their two losses. On Saturday, two of those turnovers were returned for touchdowns by Ole Miss -- one interception and one fumble return.
“That's my fault,” quarterback Kenny Hill said Saturday. “I had three turnovers [vs. Ole Miss] and two of them went for touchdowns. We can't win like that. That's on me.”
Hill is correct, but he isn’t the sole culprit. The interception that Cody Prewitt returned for a touchdown saw Hill feeling pressure courtesy of Ole Miss defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, who had beaten left tackle Cedric Ogbuehi to get in Hill’s face just as he released the football. Hill felt harassment against Mississippi State and Arkansas as well.
Dropped passes were a serious issue against Mississippi State the previous week. The Aggies had nine, according to ESPN Stats and Information, the most by a Power 5 team in four seasons, but Sumlin and his staff were harsher in his grading of that game, giving the Aggies 11. Drops didn’t creep up as a major issue vs. Ole Miss but were a concern against Arkansas, too.
“It's a number that we aren't proud of,” said senior receiver Malcome Kennedy, who missed the last two weeks with a shoulder injury. “[Receivers coach David Beaty] always says 'One dropped ball is too many,’ and it makes perfect sense, that is too many.”
The absence of Kennedy hasn’t helped matters. He suffered a separated shoulder late against Arkansas, sat out briefly and returned to finish the game with a game-winning touchdown reception in overtime but has been unable to go the last two weeks after testing the shoulder in warmups.
That has disrupted the flow of the offense because Kennedy was leading the team in receptions at the time of his injury. He is a vocal leader and Hill, Sumlin and offensive coordinator Jake Spavital have indicated that Kennedy means an immense amount to the offense.
The Aggies tried to get their running game going early against Ole Miss, but the Rebels were having none of it. A&M finished with 54 yards on 35 carries, a measly 1.5-yards per carry average.
So what do the Aggies do?
"You're always analyzing where you are,” Sumlin said. “When things are going good you're analyzing and you're analyzing when things are going bad and not the way you want them to, [too]. So that's kind of where we are right now.
“As a team, you're always looking to get better and fix problems. Sometimes when you're winning those things are glossed over, but as a coach, you have to be honest with your schemes and honest with yourself. Really, that was the message to players and coaches. Right now is a time where you have to be able to look yourself in the mirror and look for and be honest with the deficiencies that have been presented and then be able to fix those during the week or adjust during the week.”
The Aggies’ season-opening win at South Carolina -- which looked much better that day than it does now, knowing what we know about the Gamecocks -- caused many to believe that the Aggies wouldn’t miss a beat after the departure of three of the best offensive players in the program’s history: Quarterback Johnny Manziel, receiver Mike Evans and offensive tackle Jake Matthews.
What these last two weeks have illustrated is that it is difficult to replace players of that caliber, especially with the type of youth the Aggies are operating with. For all the hype he received early on, it’s easy to forget that Hill just made his seventh career start. The same applies for others such as receivers Speedy Noil or Ricky Seals-Jones, two key members of the talented but young group of receivers.
It might take time to fix some of the issues that have crept up, but that’s something the Aggies don’t have much of currently, because a trip to Tuscaloosa for a showdown with Alabama looms on Saturday. If the Aggies want any chance of repeating the success they had in their last trip to Bryant-Denny Stadium, their offensive woes will have to be cured quickly.
Merely weeks ago, the Aggies were riding high with a top-10 national ranking, spotless record and national buzz about being a College Football Playoff contender. For Aggies that feared the prospect of life post-Johnny Manziel, it was a dream land, the program flexing its muscle and showing it was more than just one player and long-term success in the SEC was here to stay.
Seven games into 2014 -- the most recent two being convincing losses to the Magnolia State squads -- many are left wondering what to think of this Texas A&M team. Clearly, the Aggies aren't what many perceived them to be after their season debut, nor does it seem likely they are as bad as they've looked the previous two Saturdays, when they've taken beatings from two teams currently ranked in the top three nationally.
What we're seeing is a team in transition, which is what many expected before Texas A&M went to Columbia, South Carolina and blew the doors off the Gamecocks, 52-28, on Aug. 28.
Preseason expectations of the Aggies weren't high from most pundits and outsiders. After saying goodbye to three NFL first-round draft picks, Manziel, Mike Evans and Jake Matthews, it was natural to assume some growing pains in coach Kevin Sumlin's third year. A first-time starter at quarterback and a still mostly-young defense which had an awful 2013 were the primary reasons for a skeptical eye.
When Kenny Hill and the Aggies went to Williams-Brice Stadium and snapped South Carolina's 18-game home-winning streak in emphatic fashion, it suddenly recalibrated expectations and gave the Aggies a look of a team with its foot on the gas pedal, expectations be damned.
As weeks have passed, it became evident the Aggies' big win wasn't as telling as initially thought. These Gamecocks don't resemble the group that won 11 games each of the past three seasons and are now fifth in the SEC East. The national rankings boost and buzz that followed Texas A&M in the aftermath turned out to be based on unfulfilled expectations of what South Carolina really was.
It seems the Aggies' overtime win against Arkansas, in which they had to scratch and claw out of a two-touchdown deficit late, is more revealing into what this current group is: a young team that is both talented and flawed, showing flashes of both brilliance and frustrating inconsistency at different times.
The overreaction to the South Carolina win, talks of Heisman Trophy contention and "Kenny Trill" made it easy to forget the sophomore is still a first-year starter. The Aggies' 35-20 loss to Ole Miss was Hill's seventh career start. In addition, he's accompanied by a talented but young group of receivers. Of the nine listed on the Texas A&M depth chart, seven are freshmen or sophomores.
In an offense like Texas A&M's, which is predicated on timing, precision and chemistry, the ills that come with playing a young quarterback or young receivers can be disruptive, unless you're fortunate enough to have a transcendent player running the show, like the Aggies did Manziel the past two seasons, who kept defenses off balance with his scrambling ability. After Hill and his receivers played stellar ball in the Aggies' first four games, the last three have seen Hill throw three interceptions, the receivers drop 15 passes, according to ESPN Stats & Information, and the overall effectiveness of the passing game has dwindled.
Replacing a Heisman Trophy winner and a top-10 pick at receiver isn't supposed to be smooth.
Defensively, the Aggies have made progress from the SEC-worst unit that existed a season ago, but there is still a long way to go. Linebacker depth is lacking. Secondary play has been inconsistent. The defensive line is talented and has held its own but, like the Aggies' receivers, has a lot of youth, with seven of the 10 players on the depth chart being freshmen or sophomores. In a league like the SEC, built on strong line play, that can make life challenging.
Against Ole Miss, the Aggies struggled to stop the Rebels in the first quarter but forced five consecutive punts after that. Against Mississippi State, they seemed to have few answers for Dak Prescott & Co. Against Arkansas, early struggles against the run were followed by clutch stops in the fourth quarter and overtime, including one that sealed victory on fourth-and-1.
The Aggies have recruited at a high level in the Sumlin era, turning in back-to-back top-10 classes and are on track for a third straight in this cycle, but not every player is a Myles Garrett or a Speedy Noil, who can make the type of instant impact that those two have. The up-and-down nature of the Aggies' recent play is one byproduct of the amount of youth lining up weekly for them in college football's deepest, toughest conference.
In reality, the Aggies are likely at least a year away from being true SEC West title contenders. Sumlin, whose name was rumored as a candidate for the USC job or NFL jobs last offseason, didn't pass on those other opportunities for what awaited Texas A&M in the immediate future of 2014. He doubled-down in Aggieland because of what he believes the future holds in 2015 and 2016 as talent continues to stockpile and facilities continue to improve (well, that and a hefty $5 million-per-season contract, which runs through 2019).
Much like its home, Kyle Field, the Aggies are a team in transition and the finished product is still at least a year away.
A Texas football Saturday in October, from start to finish. That was the mission.
In the morning, one of the sport's great rivalry games: Texas vs. No. 11 Oklahoma at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. Afternoon brought No. 9 TCU vs. No. 5 Baylor in Waco, a series played 109 times without both teams ever being ranked at the same time until now. Then for the nightcap, a new SEC West rivalry, No. 3 Ole Miss vs. No. 14 Texas A&M in College Station.
Three of the nation's best college football games, all within 200 miles in a neat line from north to south. A challenge just too good to pass up.
So we boarded the ESPN DIRECTV bus and made the nearly 16-hour voyage from game to game to game. The following is a diary of the sights and the sounds, the atmosphere and the action.
Dallas: Texas-OU, corn dogs and turkey legs
8:30 a.m.: The day begins the only way it can: with a warm corn dog in hand.
David Dixon, a 60-year-old Sooner living in Dallas, has figured this out in his 30-plus years of visiting the State Fair of Texas: You must strike early when the oil's hottest. "You've gotta get the one with the first grease," Dixon said. "That's the best corny dog." Dixon's uncle, the late Tommy Gray Jr., played halfback on OU's 1950 national title team. This isn't his first Red River rodeo. "This is the greatest experience in the world," he proclaims.
9:05: Texas' team bus rolls up to the Cotton Bowl behind a three-motorcycle escort, under overcast skies. Strength coach Pat Moorer, easily the scariest of the Longhorns coaches, is the first off the bus. Each Longhorns player, dressed in their mandatory blazers, khaki pants and burnt orange ties, fist-bumps Mark Evans as they step onto the fairground. It's his first year as the Longhorns' bus driver, and his first foray into the fair was a smooth one. "The team was quiet," Evans said. "Focused. All business."
After the past couple of weeks, maybe that question should be: Can the state of Mississippi get two teams into the playoff?
The Bulldogs and Rebels have been that good. MSU jumped over Florida State and into the No. 1 spot in both polls, while Ole Miss remained in the No. 3 spot in the rankings.
These are heady times in the Magnolia State. But the Egg Bowl looms large and is late enough in the season that it's certain to bloody the loser's résumé.
With all of the parity in college football, all of the chaos and the fact that the SEC West still has a lot more self-destruction to come, let's not put two SEC teams into the playoff just yet.
Here is our full list of conference bowl teams entering the eighth week of the season:
College Football Playoff semifinal (Rose Bowl): Mississippi State
Capital One Orange Bowl: Ole Miss
Cotton Bowl: Auburn
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl: Georgia
Citrus Bowl: Alabama
TaxSlayer Bowl: Texas A&M
Outback Bowl: Missouri
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: LSU
Belk Bowl: Arkansas
AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl: Kentucky
AutoZone Liberty Bowl: South Carolina
Birmingham Bowl: Florida
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Edward Aschoff, Jeff Barlis, David Ching, Sam Khan Jr., Chris Low, Greg Ostendorf and Alex Scarborough contributed to these rankings.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Bo Wallace ran for two scores and threw a touchdown pass and Mississippi's defense added two scores to help the third-ranked Rebels remain undefeated with a 35-20 victory over No. 14 Texas A&M on Saturday night.
Wallace gave Mississippi (6-0, 3-0 SEC) an early lead with touchdown runs on consecutive possession in the first quarter. Cody Prewitt returned an interception 75 yards for a score in the second quarter to make it 21-0.
A&M (5-2, 2-2) cut it to 14 in the third quarter, but Wallace answered with 33-yard touchdown pass and Mississippi padded the lead with a fumble return for a TD early in the fourth quarter.
Kenny Hill threw for 401 yards and two touchdowns, but also had two interceptions and a fumble for the Aggies, who lost for the second straight week after opening the season 5-0.
There was no letdown from the Magnolia State this week. Mississippi State got a big win Saturday afternoon, and Ole Miss followed suit with a dominant performance over Texas A&M in the nightcap. The Rebels scored first and never looked back in their 35-20 win.
How the game was won: The Ole Miss defense set the tone early, forcing a three-and-out on Texas A&M’s opening drive, and it never let up. The Rebels scored two defensive touchdowns, forced three turnovers and held college football’s most efficient offense in check for most of the night. At halftime it was 21-0, marking the first time a Kevin Sumlin-coached team has ever been shut out in the first half.
Game ball goes to: As good as Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace played in the second half against Alabama, there were still doubts heading into this game. When’s he going to throw that critical interception? Well, he didn’t. For the second straight game, he didn’t turn the ball over once. The senior threw for 178 yards, rushed for 50 yards and scored three touchdowns.
What it means: Mississippi State might be the best team in the country after Saturday’s win over Auburn, but Ole Miss isn’t far behind. The Rebels have the best defense in the SEC, if not the nation, and when Wallace is playing well they’re hard to stop. On the other side, we might have jumped the gun a bit on Texas A&M after the season opener. Kenny Hill might be a Heisman Trophy contender down the road, but not this year.
Playoff implication: After Saturday, the winner of the Egg Bowl looks like a shoo-in for the playoff. Heck, even the loser might get in. There’s still plenty of football left to be played, but the Rebels certainly helped themselves in the eyes of the committee. Texas A&M isn’t done, but the Aggies would have to win out and still get some help.
Best play: It’s fitting that the best play of the night came from the Ole Miss defense. With the game still in doubt and Texas A&M driving, Rebels safety Cody Prewitt intercepted a pass and took it 75 yards to the house. If the Aggies score, it’s a one-possession game. Instead, the lead went to 21 points, and there was no coming back from that.
What's next: Ole Miss heads back home to face a young and hungry Tennessee team, while Texas A&M has another difficult test on the road at Alabama next Saturday. The Aggies and the Tide will kick off at 3:30 p.m. ET.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas - Kyle Field is home to the SEC's attendance record. The site of No. 3 Ole Miss vs. No. 14 Texas A&M drew 110,633 on Saturday night and marked an SEC single-game record. It also was the most people to ever attend a football game -- college or pro -- in the state of Texas.
The previous SEC attendance record was set at Tennessee's Neyland Stadium in 2004, when the Volunteers hosted Florida. That game, a 30-28 Tennessee win, drew 109,061.
The record came in the Aggies' third game in their partially redeveloped home. Kyle Field is currently undergoing a $450 million renovation scheduled to be complete prior to the 2015 season. The first phase of the project was completed just before the Aggies' home opener Sept. 6 against Lamar, and the second phase will begin after this season.
Once the redevelopment is completed, Kyle Field will seat 102,512. The stadium currently lists a capacity of 106,511.
The Aggies' attendance victory didn't translate to one on the field, and Texas A&M lost 35-20.
Alabama Blows Out Texas A&M In 59-0 Rout
Final Furman 10 South Carolina 41 Final 21 Texas A&M 0 7 Alabama 59 Final 10 Georgia 45 Arkansas 32 Final Tennessee 3 3 Ole Miss 34 Final Missouri 42 Florida 13 Final Kentucky 3 LSU 41